by Dave Arnold
Should you salt meat before you sear it? I thought the answer was always yes. But the answer is: it depends.
My Previous Position:
Some cooks donâ€™t like to salt before they sear because, they say, salted meat loses juices. But who cares? Losing juice does not mean the meat wonâ€™t be juicy. Extra juice makes meat taste watery and bland. Moisture isnâ€™t necessarily your friend; delicious is your friend â€“and salting meat before you sear it makes it more delicious.
My Position Changes:
I have found an exception to my salt-before-searing rule that should have been obvious to me â€“low-temperature cook-chill meats. With low temperature cooking you use very precisely controlled temperatures to cook to exact levels of doneness. If I want a medium-rare steak with an internal temperature of 55â°C (131â°F) I cook it in butter at exactly 55â°C, not in an oven or pan at 200â°C (392â°F). Wanna know more about low-temp cooking and all its advantages? See my unfinished primer here.
There are two main types of low-temperature cooking â€“direct-serve and cook-chill. For direct-serve you cook foods and serve them right away. For cook-chill, foods are cooked, chilled, stored, and rethermalized* at service time. Here is a typical sequence for cooking a steak:
- Sear the raw rib-eye. This step kills bacteria on the surface, starts the browning reactions that contribute to good meat flavors, and ensures that a nice crust will be formed quickly later when the meat is seared again.
- Put meat in a bag with butter.
- Cook the steak for 1-4 hours at 55 C. The optimum length of time depends on how tough the particular steak is.
- Now, either:
- Pull the steak out of the bag, sear it (to make a nice crust) and serve it. This is Direct Serve.
- Chill the meat and store.
- Retherm it at 52 C.
- Pull the steak out of the bag, sear it and serve it. This is Cook-Chill.
My direct-serve meat has always been delicious, but I had noticed that my cook-chill meats were never quite as juicy and delicious, and the color was a little strange. I thought about the fact that I always liberally salt my meat before I cook it, and came to believe that salt might be the culprit. Maybe the pre-sear salting was curing the stored meat even though it was cooked â€“rendering it firmer and less juicy.
To check the theory I ran a test, cooking rib-eyes three different ways:
- A rib-eye was salted, seared, placed in a vacuum bag, and cooked at 55 C for 1.5 hours, chilled, stored for two days, rethermed at 52C for one hour, seared, and served (Salted Cook-Chill).
- A rib-eye was seared without salting, placed in a vacuum bag, cooked at 55 C for 1.5 hours, chilled, stored for two days, rethermed at 52C for one hour, seared, salted, and served (Unsalted Cook-Chill).
- A rib-eye was salted, seared, placed in a vacuum bag, and cooked at 55 C for 1.5 hours, dropped to 52 C and held for one hour, seared, and served (Salted Direct-Serve).
Youâ€™ll note I salted the unsalted meat before service, because if I didnâ€™t, it would be too easy for my tasters to distinguish.
I called in a three-person tasting panel (our Chef HervÃ© (who did the actual cooking on this one), Chef Annette, and Chef Angela).
We used a triangle-taste-test protocol. In a triangle test, I serve two pieces of meat that have been prepared the same way, and one that is different, and see if the panelists can detect the one that is different.
The panel easily and unanimously correctly distinguished between the salted and unsalted cook-chill meats. As expected, the salted meats were firmer, and had a more cured color than the unsalted. Everyone preferred the unsalted meat. The panelists were also all able to distinguish between the salted direct-serve meat and the unsalted cook-chill. Here, the panelists also preferred the unsalted cook chill, because the direct-serve steak, although juicier than the cook-chill steak, had a stringier texture. The differences between these two steaks were not as stark as with the salted and unsalted cook-chill meats. In my opinion, the differences between these two could simply be due to inter-steak variation. More tests are in order.
If you are serving your meats within a couple of hours, salt before you sear â€“itâ€™ll be great. If your service is many hours or days away, lay off the salt till service time.
*I use rethermalize instead of reheat not because I like useless fancy words, but because the food code requires very high temperatures for â€œreheating,â€ but has no standards for â€œrethermalizing.â€ Dumb but true.